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The Future of Our Past

Digital archives and the democratization of knowledge

Usually, when I tell my students that our course will focus on archives, they almost fall asleep in front of me. In fact, it seems that the mere mention of the word “archive” triggers a yawning reflex. People imagine the archive as a far, distant, dark and dusty space, where a shriveled-up archivist sits buried under a pile of old files and papers. However, I think that if they knew more about the major role archives play in our lives and the effect they have on our society, their reaction would probably be different.

I sometimes believe that archives are so important that their construction as abandoned and obsolete must be part of some kind of conspiracy, since they are so crucial for democratic societies. The reasons for why they do not receive the attention that they deserve are an enigma to me. I do not know why archives have been deprived of the prestige that journalism enjoys, along with museums and libraries.

These questions (and many more) rose throughout my field work, during which I examined the digitization of archives at the National Library of Israel in order to understand the processes involved in the construction of digital archives. In the following, I will share some of the thoughts I had while conducting my research.

Digitization of archival records = democratization of knowledge?

The idea of studying the construction of digital archives started when I was writing my master’s thesis in the Department of History at Tel Aviv University. I analyzed the representations of the German woman’s body in NS FrauenWarte, the official Nazi women’s magazine. Although most of the original copies of the magazine were accessible only in German universities, I found an online archive that included scanned and uploaded copies of the old magazine. From miles away, I had access to materials that had previously been accessible only to those within physical proximity.

The digital archive allowed me to complete my research, and it made me realize that digital archives had the potential to revolutionize historical research and future memory. It was then that I thought to myself that I finally understood the commonly used cliché “democratization of knowledge,” since I was able to picture the digital archive “breaking the walls” of the traditional, dusty, cold and dark depository and making primary archival records accessible to people from all over the globe. This experience led me to examine the construction of digital archives at Israel’s most prominent site for preserving knowledge and culture — its National Library.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was wrong. After I followed the practices of archival workers, the role of technologies, and the representation of archival materials as digital objects at the National Library of Israel, I learned that digitization of archival records does not necessarily mean “democratization of knowledge.” Indeed, digital technologies have the ability to provide access to documents that have previously been preserved only in the physical depository. But technology, I grew to understand, does not work alone. What was missing from my original premise regarding the digitization process of records was the role of human agency.

First, while machines are obviously inherent to the processing of scanning the materials, humans are the ones in charge of selecting archival records for digitization. To this end, the assumption that all materials will eventually become digital appears to be incorrect since even if an institution like the National Library would choose to scan every single document in their possession, the work would require time as well as unfathomable amounts of resources. So, they prioritize the materials. Ideally, the selected archival records would become an open resource for a variety of cultural agents, including historians, authors, teachers, screenwriters and others. Conversely, records that are left out of the digital corpus would be excluded from the historical discourse.

The curators at the National Library of Israel chose archival records that they defined as interesting and appealing to the general public. They also sought to create a balanced collection that will represent history in ways that they perceived as impartial. Furthermore, the selection of materials for digitization can only include those which were originally deemed worthy of preservation in the physical archive. The result is that digitization ensures that marginalized materials remain marginalized and reaffirms contemporary narratives of the past.

Second, the scanning process, which is perceived as technical, automatic and mostly machine operated, also requires human interference. For example, how should we scan a torn picture? As two separate files, or should we combine them together? Another example came up when I observed a photographer scan an old archival notebook. The first pages of the notebook included the handwriting of renowned poets. However, the rest of the pages in the notebook were blank. Cases such as this raise questions regarding the process of selection — should we scan blank pages?

Third, the search interface of the digital archive can also serve as mediator of the digital archival records. By indexing documents using particular key words, exhibiting “highlights” from the collection, and presenting default modes of retrieval, the search interface may direct users to a certain narrative of the past. The design of the interface and the algorithm that enables retrieval of the search words are all eventually determined by humans.

The factors I mentioned demonstrate that digitization of archival records does not necessarily mean that an objective set of materials will now become available to anyone around the globe. The digital archive is already constructed by archivists, and this construction requires curatorship work and human interference which is, in fact, very similar to the processes involved in creating the physical repository.

From analogue to digital — a transition period?

At the beginning of this journey, I thought that I could not have picked a better time for my study since we are currently living in somewhat of a transition era — from the analogue to the digital. Similar to people who lived during the 16th century and experienced the transition period from writing to print, we now have the rare opportunity to witness first-hand a major historical change. I felt so lucky to have this opportunity to document these processes. How interesting it is to be a social scientist during these exciting times! — I remember thinking that to myself.

Again, I was proven wrong. While I still feel extremely lucky to be a social scientist, I also realize that what we are experiencing is not exactly an “era of transition” as I had initially believed. From the interviews I’ve conducted with technologists at the National Library of Israel I’ve learned that digitization is an ongoing process. We might be able to point to its exact starting date, but we most certainly cannot predict when it will end. As the process of digitization progresses, so does the realization that the new medium is rather unstable, and archivists are consistently concerned with the hazards of data loss.

Furthermore, the technological landscape is constantly changing, faster than ever, and therefore both archivists and technologies themselves must be prepared for the next new medium. While it is hard to predict when a new medium will be integrated and what new characteristics it might hold (as suggested by one of the informants: “maybe the next technology will allow us to smell and feel the original documents?”), one thing we can be certain of is that it will eventually emerge, and probably sooner than expected.

In both cases — the hazard of losing data and the expectation for the next medium — archivists can never do away with the analogue “original,” making it difficult to determine whether we should define this as a “transition period” at all.

What will we leave behind?

On my way back from the David Bowie exhibition at Brooklyn Museum, I couldn’t help but thinking what kind of digital traces we will be leaving behind for the future. The exhibition displays from Bowie’s personal archive and explores his creative process by presenting his original handwritten lyrics sheets. There is something so magical and mesmerizing about viewing his drafts and sketches through the platen glass.

But current artists’ creative processes mostly take place through computers, and contemporary art works are often born digital. What kind of personal archives will they leave behind, and will the original become a permanent copy? Will the non-materials have the same impact on us? Will they have the same aura that Bowie’s personal hand writing had?

These questions concern the preservation of originally digital records. The ephemeral nature of digital information poses challenges for archivists and technologies regarding the preservation of digital content. It may very well be that the web is so dynamic that it is unachievable. How can we preserve all social media that is out there? All blogs? All interactive media and virtual reality?

So many uncertainties, and one thing remains clear: our need as humans to document our present and preserve our past for the future. That is what archives are for.

Sharon Ringel is a Postdoctoral Researcher and Tow Center for Digital Journalism Fellow at Columbia Journalism School. She will join the faculty of the Department of Information & Knowledge Management’s graduate program in Archival Science at the University of Haifa (Israel) in 2019. 

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Sharon Ringel

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